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April 1, 2010

Obituary: Susan “Leigh” Star

School of Information Sciences professor Susan “Leigh” Star died suddenly March 24, 2010. She was 55.


The cause of death has not yet been determined, according to the Allegheny County Office of the Medical Examiner.

Star was director of the Sara Fine Institute and held the Doreen E. Boyce Chair in Library and Information Science.

She and her husband, Geoffrey Bowker, joined the SIS faculty in August 2009.

Star earned a PhD in sociology at the University of California-San Francisco. Her research interests included information worlds and naturalistic studies of information infrastructure; classification and standardization; sociology and history of science, medicine, technology and information systems; qualitative methods; feminist theory, and sociology of work. Star taught several new courses including Literacy in the Information Age.

SIS Dean Ronald L. Larsen said Star’s background as a sociologist and her work on “boundary objects”  — exploring how different groups of people interact when they are brought together around a common interest —  and value-centered design, which explores the ways values are integrated into information and communications technology, helped the school move in new directions. “It made her of interest for a school like ours with a lot of technical initiatives,” Larsen said. “Her work coupled a profound understanding of technology, looking at it from a humanistic perspective.”

A recent reorganization in the school aimed in part to foster collaborative research endeavors, and the couple’s arrival at Pitt was part of that strategy. Larsen said a cultural shift already was underway in the school, adding, “We were excited about that progress and very sad and disappointed at the loss” of the professor who was among the people contributing to those changes. “We will carry on in her memory,” he said.

Larsen said Star demonstrated a quiet, reflective demeanor, characterizing her as the kind of person who typically is quiet in meetings, but  “who, when they start speaking, everyone stops and starts to listen.” In faculty meetings, he said, Star brought a novel perspective that was accepting and inclusive of alternative and competing concepts. “In the best of academic style,” he said, “she showed it was okay not to agree,” adding that she changed the tenor of conversation among faculty in the school.

“I never saw her raise her voice to anyone,” he said, noting that she was an excellent listener who appreciated others and who strove to understand and consider their viewpoints.

“She was a gentle, thoughtful individual,” he said.

Prior to arriving at Pitt, Star was a professor in the Center for Science, Technology and Society at Santa Clara University. She also held academic and scholarly positions at the University of California-Irvine; University of Caligari (Italy); University of California-San Diego, and the University of Illinois/Champaign-Urbana.

She was a past president of the Society for the Social Studies of Science and co-edited with Bowker the group’s journal, Science, Technology and Human Values.

Star’s students have established a commemorative web page at

In their memorial, Star’s students stated, “When Leigh and Geof gave their job talk last fall, many of us became very excited because we knew that if they came to Pitt they would change our lives. Their hip and innovative scholarship was to be admired and when we found out they had been hired, we could not wait to take classes with them. This semester,doctoral students at different points in their scholarly careers enrolled in Leigh’s Seminar in Research Methods … . Her insight and passion for scholarship; the stories of Anselm Strauss, Howard Becker and the Chicago School of Sociology; the ethical and moral implications of standards; boundary objects and boundary infrastructure; affordances and constraints; Science and Technology Studies meets Library and Information Science — she was grounding us and challenging us every Monday afternoon. …

“In ‘All About Love: New Visions,’ Bell Hooks notes how we can fall prey to the notion that the end of the body corresponds to the death of the spirit. She calls on us to embrace the spirit beyond the body ‘…through rituals of remembering, through ceremonies we invoke the spirit presence of our dead, and through ordinary rituals in everyday life where we keep the spirit of those we have lost close. Sometimes we invoke the dead by allowing wisdom they have shared to guide our present actions. Or we invoke through reenacting one of their habits of being. And the grief that may never leave us even as we do not allow it to overwhelm us is also a way to give homage to our dead, to hold them (202-203).’

“We set up this site to invoke Leigh’s spirit during this difficult time.”

In addition to her husband, Star is survived by her father, Glenn T. Kippax, and his wife, Elizabeth; her sister Cynthia Kippax Ripley and brother-in-law Don Ripley, and nieces Kristen Amy and Heather Leigh Ripley.

A memorial service was held March 30 in Pittsburgh. Services in Star’s native Rhode Island are scheduled for April 2.

Donations inStar’s memory may be made to the SempervirensFund at

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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